Beyond galleries

Published: 03.04.2009
Benjamin Lignel Benjamin Lignel
Benjamin Lignel
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The artistic labour market is not spared by the global evolution of the precarious labour market. Better still, it bears all its symptoms in a caricatural manner.
Yann Moulier Boutang.

Daunting, is it not? If you are reading these lines, it probably means that you are a contemporary jewellery maker, between 25 and 55, supplementing your direct and gallery sales by teaching or working part-time on something hopefully not too unrelated to jewellery, and generally disgruntled about what galleries do and don’t do for you. And so you are looking for answers to that ole’ question: how can I live from the activity I live for?

You will not find them here.
Firstly, because I suspect the alternative models we need will either come from outside our field or have to be invented. Secondly, because if I had a plan B, and knew it worked, I would have put it in place already.

Instead of a plan, I have some questions for you (and me), and some hope that the ideas that will be thrown in, dissected and assessed on this platform may lead to:

a/ a complete overhaul of the gallery system, whereby these greedy and uncaring mercantile institutions finally see the light, and give you, the reader, that one (wo)man show with artist monograph you so clearly deserve (all your friends think so), and a life-long guarantee of a steady income, with no extra work for you. Because they are galleries, and this is their job.

b/ a complete overhaul of the gallery system, that sees the development of several new businesses and promotional models, that ends the de facto market monopoly of galleries, creates a healthy emulation between the known (and unknown) players in the field and encourages us to develop new tools to study our practice, promote its actors and sell its products.

c/ you logging out from this blog, because, frankly, you have better things to do.

I am not a neutral person, no one really is: this is the age of infomercials and docu-fictions, embedded reporting and cut and paste information. The opinions expressed on this platform are necessarily moulded by, and limited to, my own experience (French-born and raised, trained in furniture design in the UK etc...). So let me spell out where I am speaking from:

1/ I believe (like Raymonde Moulin, who wrote those lines) that “uncertainty and risk are intrinsic to artistic practices and the prestige they bestow.” Artistic recognition was never going to be a walk in the park, and implies, in my view, working alongside galleries to make sure that the degree of ‘uncertainty’ mentioned above is as minimal as possible.

2/ I do not believe in the largely idealised role-sharing between artists and galleries, that sees the former concentrate solely on producing work in the sheltered refuge of their ateliers, while the latter takes care of everything else (promotion & sales): this model does not reflect the reality of our market, nor is it necessarily an ideal set-up.
It does not reflect it, as most of us do direct sales and a fair bit of self-promotion from the said atelier, and over the net, to a personal network of word-of-mouth clients (it is also statistically unrealistic, as very few jewellers have managed to establish this sort of relationship with a gallery).
Nor is it ideal, I would argue very subjectively, as I personally favour the freedom of controling (some of) my communication over the legitimacy of gallery promotion.

These, then, is how I feel today, before discussing it with you. I have three sets of questions for you, the reader: I’d like to hear your thoughts on these subjects (or around these subjects), so that we may know what’s what, inspire one another, and get on with it, for gold’s sake!


Question nº1 - The real vs the fantasized: how does it actually work?

For all the community’s claim to be like the art world, we find few examples of jewellery galleries doing art gallery work: studio visits to prepare solo exhibitions, biennial shows of each of their (hopefully limited number of) artists, the production of artist catalogues with in-depth analysis of the work (well, even in the art world, that rarely happens!) etc...
Makers, on the other hand, are not always ready (or capable) to meet the demands of an ‘art-world-type’ artist-gallery relationship, and all of its implications: contractual territorial exclusivity, no direct sales (whatsoever!), the regular production of exhibition-worthy material etc...

So, how does it really work? How do makers make money? What percentage of it comes from galleries? How do galleries make money? What percentage of it comes from solo exhibition, as opposed to off the shelf sales? How much does an exhibition cost? A catalogue? Why isn’t there a standard mark-up? Could there be? What is the artist’s commitment to his/her gallery? That of the gallery to its artists?

Question nº2 - auto-determination and legitimacy: the artist vs. the institution.

I am convinced that makers can be their own promoters, and launch alternative exhibition and sales platforms: artist-run spaces, online shows, private exhibitions, self-publications etc. This, however, has a price: gallery exhibitions are prestigious precisely because you did not invite yourself to participate, but someone else did: you have been ‘selected’. The legitimacy of makers as bona fide artists depends to a large extent on this separation between artists and institutions. It is an unspoken agreement that recognises the competence of both parties, complementing one another for their mutual benefit. This is about authority, about who decides, and the almost alchemistic transformation of institutional respectability into sales...

Can the artist be both producer and promoter? What does this imply in terms of public recognition? Does this not undermine the work of galleries? Can the two exist together? Do you think they should?

Question nº3 - galleries and beyond - the several bastard children of Art and Commerce.

There are numerous examples of projects that have redefined the way art was shown, bought, or generally ‘consumed’: cultural platforms, art places or collective endeavors, meant to stake out an island of independence in a dominant system of distribution. The Magnum photography collective is one such example, and was created in 1947 by four photographers who wanted to retain control on the use of their images, and get a larger part of the profit they generated. Sixty years later, the agency is still owned by its (70) members, and has produced some of the most memorable news images ever shot. I hear they make a profit, too.
There are artist-run galleries, artist-run shops (Keith Haring’s Pop-shop being a famous one), artist-run restaurants (!?), artist-led auction sales (Damian Hirst), artist-edited magazines and factories (sorry, Factory): examples of artists as entrepreneurs, who not only flirt with distribution but have sexual orgies with it.

Can this happen in contemporary jewellery? Has it happened already? What models could be invented to promote this field, to circumvent or complement gallery representation? What would they be for? Sell? Show? Educate?